Barcelona are on course to complete a treble of trebles after a crazy round of Champions League quarterfinals. With La Liga in the bag, and spot in the Copa del Rey final booked, the Spanish champions are set for the semis of the Champions League, now with the tag of favourites firmly glued to their jerseys. This is after the two sides that were backed to challenge the Catalans in the quest for the premier club trophy in the world - Juventus and Manchester City - were knocked out in the quarters, in what is turning out to be the most memorable knockout stage of the Champions League in recent memory.
City were knocked out by TottenhamHotspurs in what will be remembered as one of the greatest Champions League knockout games of all-time. As Spurs qualified on the away goals after the match at the Etihad Stadium ended 4-3 in favour of the hosts, its dramaladen finale was akin to the last few minutes of the Round of 16 clash between Paris Saint Germaine and Manchester United - another knockout thriller this season. VAR played a part in both, and indeed, City’s winner being ruled out in the dying moments would remain etched as one of the classic Champions League instances - excruciatingly for the home fans.
Tottenham would play a young Ajax side which is on a giant killing roll. After beating Real Madrid in the Round of 16, the Dutch team has knocked out one of the tournament favourites Juventus in the quarters. The Italian champions, following the purchase of Cristiano Ronaldo for precisely this tournament, were expected to go all the way in the Champions League this season, but came unstuck against a meticulously gelled, more dynamic, Ajax which does not seem to have any limits to its ambitions. Even so, the draw seems to have partitioned the romance and pragmatism in the two semifinals, with the winner of the Ajax-Spurs semifinal facing either Liverpool or Barcelona in the final. Barca’s billing as favourites should not take anything away from the fact that Liverpool are a formidable outfit, perfectly capable of outdoing the Catalan giants. Not only did Liverpool make last year’s Champions League final, they are still on the hunt for the Premier League title as well. It’s precisely the active participation in the league race that has meant that Liverpool were considered outside the topmost fancied sides heading into the knockout stages.
Given that the club haven’t won the league in three decades, it was felt that the domestic crown would be its priority over conquering Europe again. However, after overcoming Bayern Munich and now Porto, there is no reason for Liverpool to not aspire to win both the major titles. However, the fact that Liverpool are still contesting their pulsating league race, while Barcelona have already wrapped theirs, would definitely play a part in the tie. Barca would be properly rested in the two semifinal legs, while every game is a must-win for Liverpool. The matchup would, however, pit the two most enthralling attacking lineups in Europe against each other. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have been running over defenses all season, while LionelMessi habitually spearheads Barca’s attacking dominance, with support from Luis Suarez and Phillipe Coutinho - who will be making a return to Anfield as he continues to address the stick he has been getting this season. There is no shortage of attacking flair in the other semifinal either.
Spurs have now beaten Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City in the knockout stages, and would feel that they have earned their right to be there. That they managed to do the business without their captain and talisman Harry Kane is a testament to the side’s depth and in particular to the exploits of Son Heung-Min. One almost feels as though Ajax would’ve preferred to face City than Spurs, given that the Dutch side seems to be thriving in the underdog label, which they won’t have against Tottenham. But with a youthful core of budding superstars like Matthijs De Ligt, Frenkie De Jong, David Neres and Donny Van de Beek, Ajax as a club would feel the need to seize the moment, as its world-beaters potentially audition for more glamourous pastures. Whatever the final lineup might be, the semifinals have four sides with a penchant for attacking football, albeit with their own unique styles. This makes for five absolute humdingers of Champions League matches next month.
Where the actual winning and losing is concerned, Barcelona would feel that they are the most experienced and the most skillful of the remaining lot. This is true despite the current Barcelona side not being near its more illustrious, and decorated, predecessors. And yet it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they match the peak of what the greatest sides - including that of their own club - have managed: a treble of the European Cup, domestic league and domestic. After disappointments in Europe in recent seasons, Messi looks as hungry as he’s ever been to lead his side to their sixth Champions League crown.